Dan Hoyt

Web developer/designer

No Takebacks 1997: Breadbasket

August 1, 1997

My journal entries become less dense as I focused more on the ride, and less interested in hearing myself talk. Certainly, there was less novelty to distract me, but the onset of August was like an alarm to get this thing done before the arrival of Fall.

Going east, there was a dearth of paved roads. Part of this owes to the large parcels of land belonging to reservations. I was left with two choices: ride well out of my way, or take the interstate. It was legal in South Dakota in 1997 to ride on the shoulder of the interstate. This may have changed since my tour.

And so I headed out on parallel state roads where I could, but often found myself routed onto US 90.

The air was humid and warm after summer came back to dispel the freak weather. The shift left me deeply drowsy, and at a gas station I abruptly woke to find someone standing over me, telling me that I couldn't sleep there. I must have dozed off while eating crackers.

I passed a sign indicating 260 miles to Sioux Falls. I had a whole lot of South Dakota to ride through.

I camped out in Kadoka at a truck stop, hidden between unsuspecting truckers.

August 2, 1997

I rolled out for my daily grind.

The interstate shoulder was surprisingly dangerous in places, moreso than a typical highway. It was often chunky and broken, of varying width, and generally unreliable. At one point I was forced onto the main lane for a stretch, diving back onto the treacherous shoulder whenever a car approached from behind.

You can install a mirror on a bar-end or helmet to see approaching traffic, but they are useless on shaky roads and shoulders. You can also rely on sound, or just the hairs rising on the back of your neck. Most of us, however, just develop a fatalistic acceptance that the time may come when we're a grease spot on the road.

At a rest stop on the western half, an attendant told me that a motorist had complained to her about a bicycle on the freeway. With her thick Midwestern accent she hinted that I was doing some terrible thing. Of course this provoked me, and I switched to legal mode and explained my rights. She then threw back, "Well I don't know about that law but I don't think it's right to blah blah blah." So I left it at that.

Dodgy conversation rhetoric: "I don't know about that." Which is like saying, "You're wrong, but I'm not going to get out my book of rightness and show you the page that proves it." So I was letting a provincial get under my skin. It stung all the more because I didn't want to be on the interstate in the first place.

Meanwhile on the other side of the interstate, doctors and lawyers were riding their stock Harleys in Easy Rider cosplay with their girlfriends, most with varying allocation of red scarves. After the series The Sons of Anarchy achieved popularity, their ranks would instead be filled by motorcycle gang cosplayers, some who got tricked into wearing "PROSPECT" on their jackets.

I met a busload of Jewish camp counselors at one gas station. Just how many counselors does it take to run a Jewish summer camp? I'm not even going for low-hanging fruit here, just curious.

Two of them gave me their contact info if I needed help when I ended up in New York City.

Riding through another small town, a passing motorist threw an unidentified metal part about the size of a fist at me. It deflected off the backward rim of the cap that I was wearing to protect my neck from the sun, but it still shocked me terribly. They drove off at a maddeningly slow speed, as if to bait me to ride after them.

I camped at Presho after an 80 mile haul.

August 3, 1997

Louis and Clark crossed paths with me at the Missouri River crossing. No herds to be seen of elk, deer, bison or beavers, but what a mighty river even so.

I don't recall exactly what town this happened in, so I'll relate it here.

I camped at a rather large park in town, but had gotten presumptive about my skills in stealth camping. While sitting at a picnic table, still in my jersey and bike shorts, writing away. A guy walks up, maybe a senior in high school or older, built like a linebacker. He wanted to know what I was doing. I gave him the schpiel, and as he surveyed the bike, he seemed to relax a little. A few minutes later, a friend of his walks up. He nods, and the first guy tells him, "It's okay, he's cool."

I didn't realize it until years later, but this was the Welcoming Committee for Undesirables, and fortunately for me, I had passed the test. I camped the night in relative peace.

Indeed, it took several years for me to realize just how interconnected most communities are beneath the surface. For those of us who only ever interact with public-facing commerce and institutions, it is all too easy to overlook the mundane underworld of lodges, rotary clubs, and other mild-mannered committees that have an outsized impact not by their works but through their networks. And then there are many intersections of private networks and politics and law enforcement, of course.

Maybe that seems like a big inference for what could have been a couple of teenagers looking for something to do. It reminded me of a similar event that happened to me and a friend in high school, only this time pursued by a minivan full of men who thought we were petty criminals. They had been notified, suited up, and had baseball bats ready for action.

August 4, 1997

Harsh plains gave way to gentler prairies after I crossed the Missouri. Ranches were replaced with farms, and the landscape became a little more calm.

There was a measure of summer weather but it never beat down on me as it had in the first leg. Rains were occurring nightly, and my sleep was often interrupted by rainfall and water seeping into the tent from below. This was to occur for the remainder of the tour, until I made Pennsylvania. Every morning I had to dry out gear, sometimes in yard sale fashion.

I believe it was this day that I met a mother and her son out for a bike ride. She was a seasoned bicyclist. They had ridden up to meet me when they saw me and plied me with the usual questions. There were some pregnant pauses. She was married, and I could sense her social calculations as she weighed a hospitable invitation versus stranger danger and what her neighbors would say (as her husband was away on business).

Caution carried the day, and the invitation was not extended. Or perhaps it was all in my head. We said our goodbyes.

I don't know for sure that I made Mitchell on this particular night, but at some point I did, so I'll relate it here.

Signs advertised South Dakota's mighty Corn Palace, and of course I had to bear witness. On a pleasant sunny day, I entered and basked in the greatness that is corn. I learned about corn. I saw corn murals. I bought and consumed corn snacks. I spoke with Higher Powers in the Secret Corn Chamber and received their Corn-Based Instruction. The Corn Palace. Visit Today.

Dinner at a restaurant turned weird when three of the waitresses behaved oddly around me. By "behaved oddly" I mean just that. Apparently their boss was putting the nix on whatever conspiracy was forming, but still they went back and forth whispering, looking at me.

Finally my waitress, who couldn't have been more than 17, starts awkwardly inviting me to her father's place to stay the night. "Do you like horses? We have horses."

I've rewritten this sentence several times, and I'll just leave it here in an unfinished state.

Stranger still, another waitress came by and asked if I wanted a free slice of pie. I'm dead serious, this was like something out of a Nabokov novel. Not even that, really, it was more like something out of an allegory.

So of course I said "Yes" to both questions, but I knew it would not end well. I took a sigh of relief when the first waitress told me she needed to ask her dad if it was okay. Sure enough, she returned flustered and apologized. Her daddy said no.

The pie arrived. It wasn't free. I bet you think that's some weird English major value-added crap. No, this really happened.

The waitress did lead me to a city park where I could camp. So I had that going for me.

August 5, 1997

My sympathies went towards anyone downwind during this day. I woke in the park, dry for once, and headed out. I rode hard through the mild landscape and mild climate, the equivalent of December in Texas. The skies were as cloudy as ever. The ride was unremarkable and I made Sioux Falls before dusk. It was a lovely little city with a river overlook.

This turned into a weird evening. Sometimes the people who invite me to stay the night already have drama going on, and I realize I've steered my ship between scylla and charybdis. Sorry, details not forthcoming. I left late the next day, struggling to put wind in the sails.

August 6, 1997

Leaving midday, I passed through a number of John Cougar Mellencamp-sized towns in my first day through Iowa before camping out in a large city park.

I vaguely remember moving around between a few sites. I can't place it on Google Maps. It's interesting that I can generally recall the first leg in fine detail, while the memories are less fixed when I get into a groove.

Pizza Hut was to Iowa as Dairy Queen is to Texas (even though it's a Minnesota chain). All of the towns I stopped at had one, and in some cases, nothing else besides gas stations. I was quite happy with this arrangement. You probably don't think of pizza as an especially healthy food, and perhaps that may be true for an ordinary lifestyle, but it is a most excellent value for bicycle touring, with the added bonus of morale boost. Also, these were sit-down restaurants built after the 70s model with heavy drapes and deep bench seats, not the fast food variety of today.

My memory has compressed all the faces of the people I met at Pizza Hut into a single mother with curly blondish hair, a chirpy Midwestern accent, a functional smile and efficient politeness. She takes my order, doesn't ask too many questions and doesn't seem very surprised by a smelly homeless dude, and serves a deep dish and one of those colored plastic Coca-Cola cups that mimics the shape of the old-timey bottle.

August 7, 1997

Dates at this point are estimates. Don't try deducing my mileage from entries alone!

By this time, I was probably averaging about 60 miles a day, but this is heavily impacted by winds and the events of the preceding day. I've written a little section on the complexity of wind on touring in my Observations column. I peaked at around 110 miles one day, but a slow day might carry me only 30 or 40.

When the weather shifted around, so did my mood and wakefulness. I often found myself reeling with brain fog after a barometer shift, and would seek out the first park bench I could find. On this day I fell under the spell of a shift towards cloudy weather, and I apparently slept for two hours straight on a park bench. I woke with a deep and lasting grogginess that plagued me the rest of the day.

On later tours, proper sleep, a healthier diet, and generally better conditioning mitigated some of this. By the end of my last tour, the weather barely ever affected my mood or wakefulness.

I believe this is the day that I camped near the parking lot of a gas station in what was probably someone's unkempt private property. I did some half-hearted drawings of water towers and then of random things as my thoughts uncoiled, and spent the rest of the night reading.

August 8, 1997

In the morning, I woke to the sounds of lawn work. The man on the tractor walked up to me as I was decamping, and we chatted. His accent was so heavily Midwestern that I may have winced. The deviation from standard television English was about the same as a backwoods East Texan in the thicket. He gave me five bucks and I was grateful and embarrassed.

I had drawn very little since South Dakota. I was paying for everything on my needlessly generous credit card (issued at a time when companies were notorious for giving students enough credit to hang themselves with). I had discarded some of my ambition, focusing on just making miles. I was in a rut.

I crossed I-35, the same interstate that I drove between Dallas and Austin. It was a weird feeling, knowing that same road snaked all the way within a block of my home.

I do not doubt there are many scenic roads in Iowa, especially along its eastern border, but Iowa Highway 9 is not among them. It is, in fact, as plain as white bread, and I was happy with that. There was very little heavy truck traffic and the shoulder was adequate for farm vehicles, so I had an easy ride. It was also flat. Very flat. In all directions, at all times, I saw corn, soybean, and the occasional hog farm. There were simple grain towers and pleasant homes. Every town had a nice little park and, of course, a Pizza Hut.

And so I was always perplexed at the signage on entering these towns. A dozen lodges, clubs and affiliations greeted me every time in a perplexing wall of data. I was looking at the landing page for pre-internet social networking.

August 9, 1997

I may be skipping a day. I spent either four or five days in Iowa; I may need to calculate and see what makes sense. I eventually made the eastern edge of the state. The flats gave way to beautifully rolling lands leading to the river. There were fewer farms and more residences, considerably more wealth, and no armoa of manure, hay, rubber, or asphalt.

The road wound gradually through this lovely place towards the mighty Mississippi River. I explored Effigy Mounds National Monument, and crossed over the river into Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

According to my journal I was very saddle-sore at this point, although I don't remember that being a big problem until I made Pennsylvania. I had farm fatigue and was desperate for entertainment.

I went up to a cop at a gas station and asked him where I could find a place to camp for free. Barely even blinking, this guy directed me to a nearby park. I had to work some hills to get there, but on arrival I found a special site all to myself with pre-cut firewood. Did I mention it was free? I love you, Dog's Prairie.

August 10, 1997

An older couple came up to me and I did the thing that I do, until I found out they were ginseng farmers. I made them divulge their secrets. I was still trying to rediscover the ginseng surge from that Korean gas station in Texas, but they fired me up with enthusiasm. It seems pretty silly now, but what kid hasn't pretended that their orange juice was a magic potion that would give them super strength? This fascination with ginseng was just the second stage of that fantasy.

The climb out of the river valley on US 18 was predictably hilly, and the weather had turned hot, humid, foggy and drizzly. I put all of my profanity in the piggy bank for when I would need it later.

The farmers told me about a Rails-to-Trails nearby, a novelty to me at the time, although they are more common now. If you are unfamiliar with these kinds of trails, they are just unused railbeds that have been converted into trails. As such, they tend to follow very controlled grades. This makes for pleasant bicycling.

For the first ten minutes, it was the best thing ever. Forested cover, a pleasant fine gravel path with birds chirping, and the occasional squirrel darting across. And just as sudden as a High Plains summer storm, it became abruptly tedious, and I pined for the roar of traffic and the ability to see things from the commanding height of a highway. So I left behind the quaint little squirrels and birds and butterflies, and got back on the Journey Into Maleness.

That night I made the town of Dodgeville. I encountered some petty small town road rage. A teenager driving a mini-van honked at me and shouted something. He turned it on a dime and peeled out. That's your mom's mini-van, dude.

I celebrated notoriety with an Uffda Bock by New Glarus Brewing Company. Every place I stopped at in Wisconsin had excellent brew. I regret I didn't have the money to truly enjoy it.

August 11, 1997

Morning fare was not so good. At a run-down diner attached to a gas station, I had the kind of Midwestern diner experience that I thought I'd left behind in South Dakota. Have you ever seen a Midwestern diner menu? In 1997, they all looked something like this:

1 egg, 1 toast: $3.07
2 eggs, 1 toast: $3.73
2 eggs, 2 toast: $4.39
2 eggs, 1 toast, 1 bacon: $4.43
2 eggs, 1 toast, 2 bacon: $5.03
2 eggs, 2 toast, 2 bacon: $5.87
3 eggs, 2 toast, 2 bacon: $6.07

You get the idea. It goes on ad nauseum for two pages like that, exhaustively listing every possible numerical combination of egg, toast, bacon and sausage. And there's like an omelette and a bowl of cereal if you need variety.

My brain revolved around food and everything associated with it while I was cycling, and any obstacle or disruption became my direst enemy.

In the town of Verona, I met an old vet who spent two years hitchhiking. He had been shaken by his experience in the war and just kind of unravelled after he returned home. He worked odd jobs across the US and spoke praisingly of the experience, saying it was a better education than he'd had in school. I regret that I do not remember any details of this conversation.

I finally made Madison in dark and brooding weather. A friend of a friend gave me a place to stay. I slept with the downward force of many bricks. Meanwhile the weather took a turn for the worse, and I was stranded for a couple of days. Her hospitality was flawless but I overstayed my welcome by a longshot, made clear by the abrupt arrival of her father and a number of hints. Before the last drops had cleared, I was on the road again.

I do not think that I ever repaid my host the kindness. It weighs on me.

As my journal accumulated the contact information of people who I met or had helped me out in some way, the numbers of letters I wrote began increasing by mathematical progression, including replies and so on. I had set up relays at places I knew that I would be, and my parents mailed the replies there in advance of my arrival. So here, at least, I had cleared some of the communication backlog.

Finally, I spent a solid half day drawing the fun town of Madison. A visiting French couple saw me making a peanut butter and bread sandwich, and they promptly bought me a healthy salad.

August 14, 1997

There is an abrupt increase in exclamation points in my journal when the sun comes out. Then the sun hides again, and the punctuation returns to normal.

I continued my trek turning gradually southeast on US 18, or perhaps it was 12. I cannot say for sure, because I didn't seem at all concerned about the routes anymore.

Note about dates

There is a nine day disparity between this section and the next. The only reliable date I have is in the next chapter, and while trying to make it flow backwards, I've given up. So I'll just leave it like this. I imagine there's a day or two in Iowa, South Dakota, and in Madison that got overlooked. I may also have spent an extra week in the Corn Dimension in Mitchell.

Next: Chicagoland